Expenses: In the name of Gord, go

Today Labour’s National Executive Committee meets to discuss dealing with expenses-happy MPs; I hear that Gordon Brown is going to be there (and not from one of the NEC, in case you’re wondering). Meanwhile the 33 NEC members have been deluged with thousands of emails from party members offering demands, suggestions and protestations about the conduct of their elected representatives.

The Prime Minister’s presence makes it likely that he will want the party, and the public, to see him as coming away from this meeting with a firm decision – his decision – on what to do. Expect the NEC to be given a plan of action and told to vote for it. No doubt it’s hoped that this will redress the balance between him and David Cameron, whose early apology and pledge to make MPs repay money has favoured him in the polls.

What are they going to decide? Two ‘extreme options’ can probably be ruled out. The first is to reselect all MPs, regardless of whether they’re under suspicion or not. The second is only to reselect an MP if the parliamentary standards commissioner decides they’re guilty of deliberately making an unjustified claim. The trouble is, how can you prove that? Will many MPs be caught out that way? I doubt it. In which case it’ll be seen as a get out of jail card for MPs, and Brown won’t get his positive headlines.

The NEC is moving towards approving guidelines for individual constituency parties to rule on whether they should try to reselect their MP (as reported in today’s Guardian). Of course, Labour’s high command isn’t going to leave it all to the constituencies to decide. But party activists and the NEC both want the power to be devolved to the grassroots.

Meanwhile, Brown faces the thorny problem of how to crack down on all MPs equally when that risks impacting on your own cabinet. How to deal with Hazel Blears’ dodgy second home claims and Jack Straw’s council tax bonanza? Perhaps the above solution is the neatest one. Is a constituency party likely to tell a cabinet minister they’ll be out of a job come June 2010, mindful of the violence that will wreak on the Westmnister scene and the humiliation it will cause for Labour? I doubt it. In which case maybe there will end up being one rule for ministers and another for backbenchers after all…

But I don’t know. We’ll see. Labour hasn’t planned a press conference for today. But keep your eyes glued to the TV.


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